For Want of a Nail

My lovely wife was surfing the web this evening and she stumbled across this loose quotation from Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richards Almanac”:

For want of a nail a shoe was lost,
for want of a shoe a horse was lost,
for want of a horse a rider was lost,
for want of a rider an army was lost,
for want of an army a battle was lost,
for want of a battle the war was lost,
for want of the war the kingdom was lost,
and all for the want of a little horseshoe nail.

The author used the quote in the context of explaining the prudence of employing the “5 Why’s” to explore root causes but I noticed something a little different when I looked at the quote so I thought I’d expand on the original thought, dissect it, and share it with you.

Think about the story relative to a problem/project you’ve been assigned and give particular attention to the level at which the problem is solved. Now, bear with me as I’m going to work backwards through the quote and note that my analysis excludes the last line since it’s really just a recapitulation of the moral of the story.

“the kingdom was lost” – The kingdom is the level at which the CEO, CFO, etc. operate. They obviously understand a problem exists if the kingdom is in jeopardy but the details are left to others to resolve. Not that they would be indifferent, rather, their leadership is exemplified in their assignment of a Black Belt to the matter.

“the war was lost” – This still a pretty high level, say Sr. Executive or Director. The problem is evident via metrics, complaints, etc, but again, the hands on work of solving the actual problem doesn’t happen at this level.

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“the battle was lost” -In a large company this would possibly be the division V.P. or someone in a similar role who will likely be held responsible for ensuring the problem is solved. Hopefully this person would champion the efforts of the Black Belt to resolve the problem and stabilize the process.

“the army was lost” – Now we’re getting closer to where the rubber meets the road. Let’s equate this to the departmental orsupervisorylevel. Someone who has solid knowledge of the processes in question and is struggling with the know-how or resources needed to address the issue.

“a rider was lost” – I would equate this tothe operator orassociate level. This person has probably been fighting the process defect in question for months. He/She has likely tinkered with the process repeatedly in an attempt to “fix” it but just can’t seem to get it stabilized for whatever reason, or may in fact have a solution but is waiting for someone to help test and implement it.

“the horse was lost” – Hopefully it’s not too much of a stretch to recognize this as the product/service.

“the shoe was lost” – Servicing or assembling the product, i.e. the process.

“for want of a nail”Defect

I guess the point of it all is that the simplest of process defects can bring down the entire kingdom and solutions typically involve drilling down to the lowest level of detail to find the root cause. Don’t be afraid to dig. The CEO might not have time to worry about all the nails but he or she will be thankful for the Black Belts who have the skills and patience to drill down and, as is the case here, save the kingdom.

Comments 3

  1. Craig Howard

    I work for a company that lives and breathes Six Sigma. I’m not in management but I am at a level that merits one day of training in its methods. I’m hooked; I’m responsible for improving some processes and I’m working to understand the concepts of SS better to do that.

    Here’s my dilemma. My immediate supervisor is now undergoing a more extensive training in Six Sigma than I received and is trying to apply it to everything.

    Every possible task I perform or am in charge of is now being converted into DPMO’s.

    Our company delivers a product to businesses. This is a process that might involve some 20 or 30 steps (which I interpret as "opportunities"). Yesterday he was all worried over one of those steps — delays at one plant in loading trucks.

    I suspect he’s begun to analyze loading delays and calculating them as isolated opportunities and will probably soon present them to me as DPMO. Am I wrong to think that, for us, an opportunity is a delivery that meets the customer’s expectations?

    It would seem to me that a loading delay which may not even end up causing an unsatisfactory delivery (but obviously does have the potential to) is not truly an opportunity but only perhaps 1/25 of one. Am I understanding the concept of "opportunity" and is he perverting the Six Sigma methodology by overemphasising one step?

    I apologize in advance if I this is another of those "newbie" questions that’s asked over and over agian; but I will appreciate your opinion.

  2. Meikah

    What you did here is very good—relating a loose quotation to a Six Sigma initiative. Every point is clearly presented. I’m a newbie in the Six Sigma field. But this early I am really convinced that the methodology is like the nail that puts together, or in place, the organization’s processes. But without the support of the other key players, everything will be for naught.

  3. Rick

    You guy are so pretentious. You go and delve into the bowels of “For want of a nail”. Read the thing and take it for what it is…one simple thing can lead to more, potentially catastrophic events…that’s it…leave it at that. Man, why don’t you guys analyze Jack and the Beanstalk…maybe you can shed some light on Jack and Jill’s meaning for life, their dynamics, their psyches….


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